Of all domesticated animals, the horse has probably made the greatest contribution to the progress of humankind by enabling personal transport and the movement of goods, and aiding in war. It was the last species to be domesticated, dating from about 3500 BC on the Asian steppes. Originally a pony-sized animal, via selective breeding specific varieties have been developed for many purposes.
The history of equids and early humans
From very early times, the horse has had a special place in human experience. In the illustrations of animals found in caves in France and Spain, dating back some 5,000 years, the equine image is always placed above that of other species. Humans held the horse in high esteem: venerated in mythology as the goddess Epona (from the Celtic “epos”, horse, and “ona”, on), the patron of mares and foals. In the Roman Empire – in the first to third centuries AD – Epona was worshipped as the protector of all equines.
The horse has had a longer period of training than any other species. This has enabled greater observation of their characteristics and ailments
Uniquely, the horse has had a longer period of training than any other species. This has enabled greater observation of their characteristics and ailments. The horse is intelligent but with reactions influenced by its origin as a prey species, always acutely aware of possible dangers. It has been said that the intelligence of a horse is a reflection of the intelligence of its trainer.
Greece, Rome and beyond: origins of the equine veterinary profession
The first written observations on equine veterinary care are found on Assyrian Empire clay tablets (circa 1500 BC). Veterinary procedures were used, and there are mentions of equine medications being administered nasally. Later, these activities were developed in Carthage until it was destroyed in 146 BC.
The first surviving texts on the horse were the Greek writings of Xenophon (431-354 BC). His instructions for horse management and care are still valid today and are noted for stressing a humane approach alongside the words “Never act in anger towards a horse”. The veterinary part of the text is related to the care of the hooves and feet.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) studied the horse, writing a text on equine gait. He also wrote on diseases and described foot problems and several equine ailments, including laminitis, broken wind and “melis” – from his description, almost certainly glanders.
Veterinary knowledge was first created with equines, while similar knowledge for other domesticated animals initially remained in the hands of folklore medicine and practitioners. The veterinary art developed in Greece, providing the Roman culture with much sensible advice. In fact, the Greeks also introduced the name “hippiatroi” for equine medical specialists, but for some reason, this was never adopted by the Romans.
Surviving knowledge – keystone veterinary texts
When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD, veterinary knowledge survived in three books:
- One by Vegetius (fourth century AD), a military man. The text concentrates on mules, the army transport animal, and contains much sound and humane advice
- A second by Chiron (fourth century AD), which is a peculiar mix of equine knowledge, some of which is quite advanced
- A final text by Pelagonius (fourth to fifth century AD), which is almost all about horse management and ailments in chariot racing horses. It contains much interesting terminology
Most of the veterinary information was derived from Greek sources, in particular from Apsyrtus (third to fourth century AD), a Greco-Roman soldier in the Roman Army, now recognised as the “father” of veterinary medicine. While much of his written work is sensible and innovative, there was no understanding of disease causation, and he believed in magic and spells for some conditions. His work is known from the Hippiatrica, a compilation book produced in the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire in the 10th century AD.
These books described a wide range of equine ailments. In the early days of the Empire, the horse was mainly used for personal riding, later in cavalry, with some used for draught work, and mules used in the army wagon trains. Lameness and foot problems were the main health issues, as well as yoke and saddle sores, skin diseases (mange) and, for army animals, puncture wounds from arrows and javelins. Colic, tetanus and internal parasites were all known. Glanders, strangles, and epizootic and ulcerative lymphangitis were described, and the serious nature of these diseases was recognised. Many medications – mostly herbal – were used, alongside bleeding and cautery. Horseshoes were only developed towards the end of the Western Empire.
Medications, surgery and spells in the medieval period
In the medieval years, as Europe became organised into countries with national identities, the role of the horse developed. They were used primarily as transport animals for personal travel and pleasure (hunting), for armies and for the use and protection of royal households.
Veterinary medicine advanced slowly in the hands of the “Marshals” or “Master-Farriers”. Medications were simple – mostly tallow fat or grease for limb ailments, along with rest. They also prescribed wort (unfermented ale), lard, garlic, olive oil and plasters plus incantations and spells. Special breads were baked with different recipes and included herbs, and were used for treatments, travelling horses and racehorses. Horses such as the palfreys of the upper classes would be medicated with honey and butter. Surgery was mainly castration, the treatment of wounds and tail docking.
Veterinary knowledge started to take shape in 1598 with the publication of a masterpiece book on equine anatomy and body systems by Carlo Ruini
Veterinary knowledge started to take shape in 1598 with the publication of a masterpiece book on equine anatomy and body systems by Carlo Ruini (1530-1598). This was followed in 1683 by The Anatomy of the Horse by Andrew Snape (1644-?), an excellent publication that was, however, marred by 22 of the 49 plates being reversed copies of those by Ruini.
Bourgelat, horsemanship, education and the Enlightenment
Horse breeding became a major business, and a wide variety of equines evolved: parade animals, racers, riding horses, pack horses for carrying certain classes of goods, mail horses for postal delivery, and coach, cart and war horses. These varieties came together with the horses bred for leisure or sports, such as jousting, racing and hunting. “Horsemanship” became a distinguishing feature of the upper classes along with the manége and equestrianism. This became a highly developed art in France, where one Claude Bourgelat (1712-1779), of a noble family, first studied law but joined the army because of his love of the horse. He then became director of the Lyon l’Academie d’Equitation.
Bourgelat cooperated with local surgeons and studied equine anatomy, physiology and pathology. He wrote books on these subjects and articles for the famous 28-volume Encyclopédie published from 1751 in the Enlightenment period, also writing that without schools, it would be difficult to acquire veterinary skills.
With help from a colleague in charge of finance for King Louis XV, Bourgelat was authorised to establish a school “to teach the knowledge and treatment of the diseases of all domestic animals”. In 1761, he became the founder of modern veterinary education. While the government was concerned by rinderpest epidemics, Bourgelat started with a veterinary course that was essentially equine in all respects. As, by coincidence, the cattle rinderpest outbreak declined, the equine animal remained the main subject of the school’s teachings.
In 1766, George Stubbs (1724-1806), the notable English painter of the horse, published his brilliant anatomy book following 18 months of dissection and drawing. Stubbs knew a veterinary school had opened in France and planned his work to help veterinarians, anatomists and horse breeders. Unfortunately, the book’s teaching value was limited because his identification labelling was too complex, but it created an awareness of anatomy as a basis for veterinary education and knowledge.
Developing veterinary medicine in the 19th century
European veterinary schools then developed rapidly, with 30 established by 1825. While this enabled an increasing knowledge of the diseases of all domestic animals, it was the horse that dominated teaching. The veterinary practitioner’s work was essentially with horses up to the early 1900s.
By the middle of the 19th century, there was a clear recognition that glanders was the most serious condition affecting the horse. However, influenza was also present, with strangles an underlying problem
By the middle of the 19th century, there was a clear recognition that glanders (and farcy) was the most serious condition affecting the horse. However, influenza was also present, with strangles (streptococcal infection) an underlying problem. These were all conditions of a respiratory or nasal character, which caused confusion in diagnosis.
Veterinary knowledge now embraces all domesticated animals but the horse, the subject of veterinary interest for over 2,000 years, has been the most important species in the development of veterinary medicine.